Propelled by a collective new vision and citywide anticipation, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and a City Council of four veterans and six newcomers arrived on a river barge to the Arneson River Theatre Wednesday evening for an outdoor inaugural celebration.

Family members who accompanied them on the barge filled the front rows of the amphitheater where more than 600 people gathered in the late afternoon heat, with many others standing outside or watching on a monitor.

The mayor, Council members, and senior City staff sported guayaberas and summer dresses on a day that neared 100 degrees. Mistress of Ceremony Deborah Knapp of KENS-TV wore a colorful flower in her hair.

The celebrants were met by patriotic fanfare, performed by a brass ensemble from Fort Sam Houston’s 323rd Army Band, and the exuberant cheers and applause of the standing-room only crowd. This was the second time the Arneson River Theatre was chosen for a city inaugural. The first time was for Mayor Nelson Wolff, who was elected to the office in 1991.

Nirenberg is the city’s 115th mayor, dating back 285 years to the first alcalde of San Antonio, Juan Leal Goraz, a Canary Island native and Spanish colonizer who arrived with 10 families from Veracruz to the Presidio San Antonio de Bexar and served from 1731-32 and a second term in 1735.

The Arneson Theatre pedestrian bridge and stage were festooned with colorful paper flowers and ribboned bouquets. Nirenberg, in his first day as mayor, received three standing ovations in the course of the 90-minute program, while the strongest applause for Council members went to Rey Saldaña (D4), the longest-serving and youngest member who now starts his fourth and final term, and Ana Sandoval (D7), the first-term representative of District 7 who ousted incumbent Cris Medina. Three of the Council members addressed the crowd in Spanish and English, with Sandoval speaking the most fluently in Spanish.

City Clerk Leticia Vacek administered the oath of office to the mayor and council members, but this was for show. The event unfolded in a theater, after all. The official swearing-in occurred earlier in the day in Council chambers. The evening inaugural was both a celebration and an opportunity for all 11 elected officials to address the crowd.

For all the speechifying, three sisters from Kenya living in San Antonio and attending St. Mary’s University on full music scholarships stole the show with a capella performances on each side of the speeches. The Moipei Sisters will perform Sunday evening at the Little Carver Theater.

The Moipei Sisters perform a song in Spanish before the ceremony.
The Moipei Sisters perform a song in Spanish before the ceremony. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

With so many speakers fit into a program scheduled for one hour that ran longer, there also were many messages. A note struck more than once was San Antonio’s reputation as a city with open arms, a city that unites in common cause even as a nation and a state fracture politically.

Fr. David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions, was the first to summon unity and openness in his prayer.

“Lord God, thank you for the wonderful gift of this river where we gather today to inaugurate our new mayor and City Council, a river named after San Antonio de Padua. It has given our community life for almost 300 years. Let this river be a reminder today that we are all called to give life to each other, we are called to lift up, to support, to create opportunity so that all can develop their gifts and lead a dignified life.

“This river has also been a source of welcome to all who have been refreshed by its waters. Let it remind us to be a welcoming community to the visitor, to the immigrant, the foreigner, those different from us who come here.

“The clear waters of this river are a source of pride. Let them remind us of our obligation to care for all creation, for Mother Earth, our common home. The sacrifice we make today to preserve our environment is the gift we leave to the next 300 years of our city and our world.”

One by one, the Council members spoke, some exceeding their allotted two minutes by a healthy measure. Nirenberg was the last to speak, but only after a sustained standing ovation amid chants of “Go, Ron, Go!”

“This is a city where we welcome all, so welcome,” Nirenberg said. “This is a new dawn in San Antonio.”

It was a reminder that the City of San Antonio recently decided to join a lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to challenge the constitutionality of Senate Bill 4, the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill, a decision that was not supported by former Mayor Ivy Taylor.

Nirenberg signaled a close to a contentious campaign between him and Taylor, whom he defeated in a runoff by a margin of more than nine percentage points. Taylor, who had not made the customary congratulations call to Nirenberg the night of the election or in the week after, shook his hand in Council chambers Wednesday morning. Nirenberg reciprocated at the evening inaugural.

“I want to make a special mention of my predecessor Ivy Taylor,” he said. “Disagreement is okay, but moving a city forward is hard work and I hope you will join me in recognition of her public service.”

This was a crowd celebrating change, and the applause was tepid.

Nirenberg described the new council as a “high performance team” and said its members would work in unity to avoid false choices between environmental protections and economic development; between the Southside and Northside; between any individual’s personal faith and accepting all San Antonians as equals.

“We are a city of the world … and our windows will be open to the world,” Nirenberg said. He already has plans to travel to Israel in October and then on to Darmstadt, Germany, where San Antonio is forging a Sister City relationship. There is talk of trade mission to Mexico this year, too.

Nirenberg and the Council members left to one more standing ovation amid high expectations with voters eager to see the new mayor and Council in action, delivering on campaign promises and propelling the city forward.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.